According to Psychology Today, self-talk “combines your conscious thoughts with your unconscious beliefs and biases.”
As a writer, I experience the power of words every day. I have a responsibility to appreciate and contemplate the impact of the language I use to describe and discuss mental illness. But more importantly, I have experienced the power of words, living as a person with both a vulnerability to mental illness and a capacity to overcome it.
Early on in my journey with depression, I began to explore the physiological basis of the disease. I quickly realized it is critical to explore medical and pharmaceutical options with a psychiatric professional due to the physical nature of many forms of depression.
However, through my research, successes, and mistakes, I have learned the things we tell ourselves can change our physiology as well.
In my psychology lectures, I have studied how the brain, because it is designed to be adaptive, begins to more quickly facilitate the neural connections (essentially the basis of thoughts and emotions) used most often.
In my life, I have seen this play out in the different seasons of my battle, where my state of mind directly reflects the language I use to describe it.
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While the details change, we most often choose between two major “storylines.” The “problem-focused” storyline and the “solution-focused” storyline.
Our natural inclination tends to be to be the “problem-focused” storyline.
We focus our attention and energy on using words to describe what is wrong with us, our disadvantages, and our pain. In other words, we focus on our feelings. We see ourselves as victims, and tend to end up wallowing in self-pity.
There is a place for describing the struggle; we cannot fight a monster we cannot see or understand. But trying to describe the monster is a means to a goal. If it becomes the goal, all the description will be in vain.
Similarly, fighting depression starts with understanding the disease. But this is a means to the goal of beating it, and we must not get caught up in the “problem-focused” storyline.
Instead, we need to repeatedly make a conscious decision to use our words in the “solution-focused” storyline.
We need to focus our attention and energy on describing our strengths, our values, and specific, practical steps we can take to beat depression.
We need to allow ourselves to be aware of our feelings without letting them define our actions.
This is a process, and often takes deliberate effort. It requires monitoring your thoughts for slips back into “problem-focused” thinking, and using accountability partners, journaling, or meditation to recover from these slips.
Fortunately, there are a couple things we can do to make it easier!
First, we can surround ourselves with empowering people.
We are often drawn towards people who will participate in our pity party. However, if we really want to recover, we need to purposely pursue relationships where we are free to share and receive the truth in love.
We need relationships with people who will not let us give up or wallow in the “problem-focused” storyline, who love us enough to keep pushing us just past our comfort zone towards our goal.
In other words, we need to spend more time with the people in our life who will say, “Get out of bed, and go to work. You can do it. I know you don’t feel like it, but you have to push yourself today.” We need to spend more time with people who will say “I know you don’t feel hungry, but you can eat and we are going to make dinner together because you need strength to recover.”
Second, we can start by committing to push ourselves to do one thing we don’t “feel” like doing, but are fully capable of doing each morning.
Each time we push ourselves, we prove to ourselves the truth of the “solution-focused” storyline.
Perhaps this means you commit to taking up daily exercise each morning. It may seem difficult or undesirable when you get started, but by the time you finish you have proved to yourself your will is stronger than your feelings. Or maybe it means separating a large task, such as cleaning out your house, into small, daily goals and forcing yourself to do one task each day.
It isn’t easy to change the way we talk to ourselves, but it is completely possible.
In fact, beginning to change the way we think by allowing the goal of adopting a “solution-focused” storyline, rather than our feelings, to guide our behavior can be our first practice of positive self-talk and this new mindset!
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